The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
"How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger"
by Marc Levinson
I've finally read this book, which has been pretty much always checked
out of the San Francisco Public Library since I've started checking. (It
doesn't help they apparently only have two copies system wide.)
The book doesn't assume you know much about shipping before or after
the container revolution, doesn't use much specialized vocabulary (save "TEU", see below)
has extensive end notes that are mostly citations, and remains pretty
focused on the changes brought about by containerized shipping.
As described in the book, shipping largely broke down into tankers,
bulk, and "break bulk" before containers. Tankers should be obvious,
bulk is things like an entire ship full of grain, and "break bulk"
was the rest of it: hauled on and off by hand, moved and stowed by
hand, all by longshoremen. Containers ate break bulk's lunch, then
moved on to eat its breakfast and dinner, then, still not satisified,
went off and cleared the shelves of the store that break bulk shops in.
Less metaphotically, the book tells the story of containers first
making some stuff cheaper to ship via break bulk, making most things
containerizable faster to ship in containers than break bulk, nearly
eliminating dockside theft by longshoreman and thus reducing insurance
costs, and then after that, having industry react to container shipping
in previously unimagined ways that vastly increased the market for
Along the way, I found this book helped me understand a lot of changes
that started before I was born and continue to evolve today. Things
like the decline of major ports such as New York and San Francisco,
which both suffered because container ports need a lot more space
(and waterside space was not abundant in either) and because container
ports benefit massively from cheap and easy connections to other
modes of transport, which is cheaper and easier at the more inland
Port Elizabeth (eating New York's shipping) and Oakland (eating
San Francisco's shipping).
Each chapter builds on the one before it, but also each chapter
attempts to be functional on its own. If you want to skip the
chapter on union fights or the chapter on the standardization process,
you won't miss out later on, similarly you can just read those if
that's what interests you.
There are some things I'd liked to have more detail about, such as
standardization. This book covers the ASA and ISO processes, but
only up until the late 1960s, not say the BIC codes that identify
particular containers these days. (BIC is a French acronym, and
translates to something like Bureau of International Containers.)
There are also hints that lack of suitable large ports for container
ships is an obstacle to the development of Africa. Checking online, I
haven't found an easy to use list, but I did find:
World Port Source
Which shows locations of ports and gives generalized sizes when you
drill down to individual countries. In spot checking, it looks like
Greece has more ports, in about the same distribution of large, medium,
and small, as all of sub-Sahara Africa. (Chicago is a "large" port
and Baltimore is a "very large port" in World Port Source terminology.)
The term "TEU" is well known to anyone who pays attention to
container ships, but that initialism is used only once in the
text, on the last page. In a few places it is spelled out as
"twenty-foot equivalent units", which makes me think the use on
the last page was an oversight. Twenty-foot containers were
more common earlier on in container history, but forty-foot
containers are more common now. TEU is often used to describe
the capacity of a ship, but you have to halve it to get the
number of forty-foot containers it can carry.
Bonus for reading this far down:
9:30 video showing one factory's process for building containers
(audio track is just music, so very safe to watch on mute)
Shorter, on-line piece, on another aspect of world logistics: the
Whitewood under siege
("Whitewood" there meaning unbranded pallets.)
This offers a short history of pallets and then dives into the world
of pallet resale / recycling and the heavily-handed recovery efforts
of CHEP (the company that owns and rents blue pallets world wide), and
newer efforts to displace wooden pallets with plastic ones.
That piece has no mention of shipping containers at all.
Final thought: old 24' containers count as 1.2 TEU